Excerpt: On Learning That I Was Teaching “N----r Literature”: Or Why It’s Hard To Do Diversity in Academe

This passage is excerpted from Sisterlocking Discoarse, a collection of essays by Valerie Lee, published in November, ©2021 by the State University of New York Press. The book is an excellent, eye-opening reflection upon Lee’s years spent in academia as a Black woman, on raising Black children and other life lessons seen from the vantage point of retirement. Lee has a finely tuned ear and sense of humor, which makes this book really hard to put down.

A few years ago, I received an email from a white woman in my high school class. She had moved to Columbus and wanted to have lunch and discuss all the great beach parties that went on during high school. Calvert County is a peninsula with one highway leading north to Washington, DC, and all the other highways leading to rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. Many of the sites have watery names: Cypress Swamp, Bayside, Back Creek, Flag Ponds, Calvert Cliffs. There are beaches, beaches, everywhere, but when my high school acquaintance recalled all the beach parties, I had to remind her that those were white-only beaches. All the Blacks in the town had to go to Seagull Beach, a place that when you rose out of the water, you had to pull the stinging jelly- fish off your legs. As teenage girls, we found this embarrassing. I never had lunch with that high school acquaintance. There was nothing to talk about. We had gone our separate ways. She had followed her husband to Ohio and had time on her hands to touch base with any former classmate she could find in Ohio, and I had become a professor of African American literature.

An eye-opening moment for me was that after teaching African American literature for over 20 years, I learned that what some whites thought I was doing was teaching “n r literature.” I stumbled upon this revelation while reading the autobiographical statement of a white male advisee who would later write a first-rate dissertation on race and sexuality. To this day, I am moved by the biographical essay that he wrote as part of his graduate studies admissions packet:

I have never been a voracious reader. I take my time. I read certain pages twice. I read the same word in the same sentence over and over again trying to penetrate it. So in the summer of 2000 when I had just finished my first year of high school, I carried the same book with me everywhere, rereading my favorite parts and mulling them over in my head.

I had a job selling tickets in a small booth at an amusement park with go-karts, batting cages, and miniature golf. Business was slow on weekdays so I could bring my book and read about 10 pages or so between customers. Few people talked to me then and even fewer asked about what I was reading, so when I noticed my boss eyeing the book as he approached my booth one afternoon, I worried I would get in trouble for reading and tried to hide it under a stack of papers.

“That’s all right. You can read,” he said when he got to the booth. I felt relieved and smirked a bit while uncovering the small paperback.

“What are you reading?” he asked, reaching his hand out to have a look at it. “ ‘The Color Purple,’ ” I said. He examined the book’s front cover—a copy of the movie poster featuring Celie’s violet silhouette and a big orange sun. He flipped it over to check out the back cover, and after a few seconds, as if he had suddenly remembered something, he wound his face in disgust, like what he tasted was sour.

“Why are you reading a book about a n----r?”

‘My boss knew that I was white, and he insinuated that literature was white.’

I was disoriented, and quickly said, “You don’t have to be Black to enjoy a book about Black people.” I can’t remember where the conversation went from there. What I do remember is being dumbfounded, appalled, and scared. And to this day I am unsatisfied with my response to his question. I recently went back to ‘The Color Purple’ and noticed, for the first time, the second sentence Celie writes in the book. I suppose her self-erasure was something I had been unable to see previously, and it brought me back to my boss’s question—and the question he was really asking me, through some other force: who is worthy of critical attention? My boss knew that I was white, and he insinuated that literature was white. Color, for him, tainted that solution. My idea of literature, then, was different, and I resent him for making me conscious of the fact that most of the literature I liked was written by or focused on African Americans and that, therefore, in his eyes, my interests were abnormal for a 15-year-old white boy.

At that moment, I understood that my boss wanted Celie and The Color Purple to disappear from his vision entirely. What I didn’t recognize until recently is the ultimatum he posed to me—that is, either stop reading those books or you too will disappear. You will lose this job. His was an insidious attempt to have me suppress my tastes, instincts, and thoughts in order to appropriate his own psychosis onto myself. I resent him for that, too.

Part of what scared me about his question was that it was spoken so loudly. He tried to impose shame on me, and I suppose he assumed that anyone within hearing distance would share his bewilderment over what I chose to read. In this process, he got me out of that booth. He made my private experience with The Color Purple cause for public concern. His question had me take literature outside of that closed space, outside of my own fishbowl, and beyond my own body. He sparked a public discourse out of something that would have otherwise remained my inner monologue. Talking about literature with others has since been important to me—necessary even—in both the classroom and the street.

This is why I want to earn my PhD, concentrating on cultural studies and literary theory, and eventually teach at the university level. Today, I know that I would not answer a question like the one posed to me five years ago. And I would probably quit my job. But, then, I stayed there and continued to read books every summer between customers until I graduated from high school. I don’t remember how to work the cash register or how to start a go-kart. I remember the books. I remember reading The Stranger in one day—a day so hot I thought I would pass out before I got to the last page. I read James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and William Faulkner. Sometimes bell hooks or Cornel West. I loved those summers because of those books, but I would also worry, worry, worry that someone would ask, “What are you reading?” because of what the question had led to before. When I entered college, I began thinking critically about literature, discussing books openly, and indulging my instinct to find Celie in classic works, thereby resisting my boss’s attempt to change me.” 

This student went on to become one of the strongest students in our pro gram as evidenced by his grades and the discursive commentary professors wrote for each of his classes.

Although the discursive comments that the department had conducted for generations of graduate students helped to give a fuller, more nuanced summary of most students’ coursework, when it came to students of color, I accidentally stumbled upon evidence that the commentary worked against the spirit of diversity. As the first African American and woman chair, I wanted to nominate one of our former African American graduates to receive a prestigious Alumni Arts and Sciences Award. Although the pool was small, a high percentage of these alumni have had stellar careers. Out of respect for their privacy, I will not detail how stellar. But in browsing several files, here is what I discovered: professors, most of whom had left before I returned to the department as a faculty member, displayed implicit biases when summarizing the work of these graduate students, writing such statements as “this Negro boy has several problems stemming from his Southern HBCU background and other issues that I shouldn’t have to spell out”; “‘Female Student X,’ having fin ished our Master’s program, should not be admitted to our doctoral program because she is uneducable”; “‘Male Student X’ cannot write and tries to bring his religious convictions to every conversation”; “[Male Student X’s] ear is not finely attuned to American idioms”; “[His work] was so juvenile in manner that it would have been rejected by many high school teachers; I doubt if he recognizes many intellectual issues when he sees them; he got as much out of this course as he is capable of getting”; “he is a profoundly neurotic young man.” I never knew that professors of English thought themselves so well versed in diagnosing mental issues until I read these graduate evaluations.

‘ “I trust the Chair,” our department’s benefactor wrote. … she certainly did not imagine an African American chair.’

Another revelation was finding an unused funding source for our graduate students. One day, while sitting in my office, I came across a letter from a woman who had left scholarship money to the department as part of her last will and testament. The gift was very generous but came with many troubling restrictions that probably explained why the money had just been sitting in an account unused. The testator specified that she did not want any of the money to go to any users or sellers of narcotics or anyone who had been convicted of a crime. However, the restrictions did not stop there. The will stresses several times that the funds should not be given to “Negroes” or Mexicans (because “their needs are adequately provided for”), or to non-Christians (Jews). The will specifies the ideal recipients as persons of “Scandinavian extraction, at least in part.” Firstly, I had not planned to distribute the scholarship money to users or sellers of narcotics. As far as not committing any crimes, I was not prepared to vouch that the graduate students had no traffic or parking tickets. As far as the exclusion of racial, ethnic, and religious groups, although the note trembled in my hand, I was not shocked that our donor did not want funds designated for Nordic literature to fall in the hands of non-Aryan, non-Christian students. After all, who does not know about restrictive housing covenants, redlining, and the long history of Jim Crow, racism, and anti-Semitism against marginalized bodies? What caught my eyes was the person the donor expected to protect her wishes. “I trust the Chair,” she says several times in a letter. She trusted that the chair would understand what such words as “Nordic” and “Celtic” meant and would keep Brown and Black hands off the money. “I trust the Chair,” our department’s benefactor wrote. I do not know if she ever imagined a woman chair, but she certainly did not imagine an African American chair. She probably imagined a white male chair in a blue three-piece pinstriped suit whose mission was to preserve the sanctity of a male Eurocentric canon, faculty, and student body. “I trust the Chair”—I reread the note and kept repeating, “You can’t trust the chair. Don’t trust the chair. Know that one day a chair will come who will immediately work with the Office of Development to right wrongs. Know that one day a chair will come with hair twisted in braids, combing through discriminatory documents, untangling illegal knots. The benefactor probably did not imagine a day when the chair of English would have hair strands that cried, “Free at last, free at last.” No, our department’s benefactor never imagined a chair who looked like me.

Valerie Lee, PhD, is a Professor Emerita of English and served as Chair of three departments at The Ohio State University, the Department of Women’s Studies, the Department of English and the Department of African American and African Studies. She also served a five -year term as the university’s Chief Diversity Officer and Vice Provost of Diversity and Inclusion and three years as Vice President of Outreach and Engagement.